Friday, December 28, 2012

Matsui Calls it Quits

After a productive ten-year career in the big leagues that followed ten seasons of professional baseball in Japan, Hideki Matsui is hanging up his spikes.

The New York Yankees signed Godzilla on December 19th, 2002 and installed him as their everyday left fielder. Joe Torre batted him fifth for the Bronx Bombers, who already featured Derek Jeter, Jason Giambi, Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams and Alfonso Soriano in their everyday lineup. The Japanese import belted a grand slam during the Yankees' home opener, becoming the first Yankee to hit a grand slam in his first game at the House that Ruth built. However, Matsui struggled to adapt to American baseball; he started slow, grounded into 25 double plays on the year and made more errors than any other outfielder in the league. But Torre stuck with him and Matsui  turned his season around when spring segued into summer. He played every game, made the All-Star team and finished his major league debut with 42 doubles, 16 home runs and 106 RBI.  He was the AL Rookie of the Year runner-up in 2003, finishing a close second to Angel Berroa of the Kansas City Royals because two writers left Matsui off their ballots altogether due to his age. New York won 101 games and beat Boston in a thrilling ALCS capped by Aaron Boone's series-ending home run off Tim Wakefield, but the Yankees ran out of gas and were upset by Josh Beckett and his young Florida Marlins team in the World Series.

Brian Cashman bolstered New York's already potent lineup by adding Gary Sheffield (instead of Vladimir Guerrero), Kenny Lofton, John Olerud, Tony Clark, and trading Soriano for reigning AL MVP Alex Rodriguez. Surrounded by more star power, Matsui responded with the best season of his career. He nearly doubled his home run output from 16 to 31, a personal best, and set career highs in runs, walks, OBP, SLG, OPS, OPS+, and bWAR. He once again played every game and made the All-Star team, and once again the Yankees won 101 games. Matsui was a one-man wrecking crew in the '04 postseason. He reached base in all eleven games, batted .412, smashed eleven extra base hits and drove in 13 runs. He was a lock to win the ALCS MVP trophy (that eventually went to David Ortiz) before Mariano Rivera blew Game 4 of the ALCS, allowing Boston to climb back into the series and ultimately make history.

Both Matsui and the Yankees bounced back in 2005. New York won its eighth consecutive division title with his contributions, which included career highs in hits, doubles, RBI, batting average, total bases, and extra base hits. The Yankees were eliminated by the Los Angeles Angels in the ALDS, and Matsui made New York's last out when Francisco Rodriguez induced him to ground out.

Prior to the 2006 season, Matsui inked a four-year, $52 million extension with the club that made him the highest paid Japanese player in baseball. His new contract also matched the one Cashman gave Johnny Damon to pry him away from the Red Sox. On May 11th Matsui suffered a wrist injury that halted his consecutive games played streak at 518 (the longest ever to start a career). He missed four full months and did not return to action until September 12th. Matsui went 4-for-4 in his first game back and caught fire during the season's final three weeks to hike his batting line up to .302/.393/.494. His hot hitting didn't carry over into the postseason, though, and New York was eliminated by the World Series-bound Detroit Tigers in four games.

Matsui rebounded with another strong season in 2007 in which he slugged 25 home runs, drove in 103 and scored 100 runs. On August 5th, he became the first Japanese player in MLB history to hit 100 home runs when he ripped a solo shot off Gil Meche into the right field seats at the Stadium. Matsui slumped badly in September and continued to struggle in the first round against the Cleveland Indians. He mustered just two hits, both singles, as New York was defeated in four games. His name was dangled in trade talks with San Francisco during the offseason, but he stayed in the Big Apple.

2008 was a lost year for both Matsui and his team. Matsui was just one of many Yankees to miss extended time that year as injuries decimated the starting rotation, forcing new manager Joe Girardi to use 13 different starters throughout the course of the season. Matsui spent two months on the shelf with knee pain and underwent surgery after the final game at Yankee Stadium (in which he went 1-for-3 with a run scored). New York won "only" 89 games and missed the postseason for the first time since the Player's Strike canceled October baseball in 1994. This profound disappointment prompted Cashman to reload the roster by acquiring Nick Swisher, CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira in an expensive winter spending spree.

Matsui managed to stay healthy in 2009 and enjoyed another strong season at the dish. After DH'ing a lot in '08, the 34 year-old became the team's primary Designated Hitter in 2009. That move, combined with frequent off-days from Girardi, preserved his body and kept him off the Disabled List. Godzilla ended his walk year with 28 circuit drives, breaking Don Baylor's record for most long balls by a Yankee DH in a single season. His big bat helped the revamped Yankees win 103 games and a World Series championship to christen their new stadium. Matsui was named MVP of the '09 Fall Classic in which he batted a Babe Ruthian .615/.643/1.385 with three home runs and eight RBI as the Yanks prevailed over the Philadelphia Phillies in six games.

The Yankees let Matsui walk (and have yet to win the pennant since), so he went out west and signed a one-year deal worth $6.5 million to play for the Halos. In what would be his last good season, he homered in his Angels debut essentially replicated his statistics from the previous season. LA finished below .500 and chose to part ways with him after the season. Billy Beane scooped him up with another one-year deal (for $4.25 million) to replace Jack Cust, but Matsui turned 37 in 2011 and finally started to show his age. He played in 141 games but batted a career worst .251/.321/375 with only 12 home runs. His Oakland A's lost 88 games and did not re-sign him.

In 2012, Matsui's tenth and final major league season, he latched on with the Tampa Bay Rays. He signed a minor league contract and appeared in just 34 games before the Rays released him on August 1st. Matsui announced his retirement yesterday. He leaves baseball with the highest home run (175), RBI (760) and walk (547) totals of any Japanese player in MLB history.

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